Skip to Content

Environmental Injustice

Posted on March 22nd, 2021

Using 2017 data (1), USDA has identified 86,104 people as the “primary producer” (e.g., farmer) on Iowa farms. Of these folks, 378 (0.4%) identified as of Hispanic origin, 45 (<0.1%) as Native American, 64 (<0.1%) as Asian, 40 (<0.1%) as African American, 6 (<0.1%) as Pacific Islander, and 85,827 (99.7%) as white. Of these white folks, 80% are male and the average age is almost as old as I am: 58.9 years. Incredibly, only 15,430 (18%) of these farmers are under the age of 45. I bet you can’t name another profession where 75% of their members are AARP-eligible. I can’t, unless there are some buggy whip makers or blacksmiths still around. Long and short, Iowa farming is whiter and older and manlier than the Caddyshack country club.

Without attempting continuity (at least for now), let’s look at the city of Ottumwa. This is the childhood home of my grandfather, Roscoe Wagner, and the place his dad (John) landed after he gave up on farming. John Wagner’s grandfather, William Wagner, left Germany in 1846 to settle and farm in the southeastern part of the new state of Iowa. Ottumwa has about 24,400 people, down from its peak of 33,900 in 1960, the year my great grandfather died. It’s now the 20th largest city in Iowa, and one of the state’s more diverse communities, with about 20% of the population identifying as Hispanic or non-white, similar to Des Moines and Sioux City, but far more diverse than Cedar Rapids and slightly more than Davenport. The median age in Ottumwa is 33 and 65% of the population is under the age of 45. Ottumwa is also one of the poorest cities in Iowa. Depending on the data source, it ranks in the mid-700s out of about 900 Iowa communities in median household income, which is remarkable considering its relatively large size (for Iowa). The city lies in Wapello County, which ranked 94th out of 99 Iowa counties in median household income in 2019.

What links paragraphs 1 and 2 is water, specifically the Des Moines River. From its source in southwest Minnesota, Iowa’s largest inland stream travels through north central and southeast Iowa (and Ottumwa) to its confluence with the Mississippi at Keokuk. The river and its tributaries drain more than 14,000 square miles and some of the most-coveted farmland on earth, which lies especially in the areas upstream of Des Moines.  This ground is underlain with an intricate cobweb of drainage pipes (tiles) that all but extirpated an entire wetland ecosystem while leaking enough fertilizer and manure nitrogen to kill an estuary 1500 miles away. As Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids paper has said, The Dead Zone Starts Here. That nitrogen reaches the stream network as nitrate, which is a regulated drinking water contaminant and the Gordian knot of Iowa agriculture.

Des Moines River Watershed with star showing location of Ottumwa.

Without a license to pollute the public’s waters with this contaminant, the corn/soybean/CAFO system can’t exist in its current configuration. I can confidently say that most people in the general public don’t realize this, but astute people in agriculture certainly do. That’s why the industry tenaciously fought the failed Des Moines Water Works lawsuit of a few years ago that sought redress for the contamination of the drinking water consumed by 20% of Iowa’s population. Something you don’t hear a lot about is that contamination makes its way down to Ottumwa, which like Des Moines, also uses the Des Moines River as a drinking water source. In the last 5 years, Des Moines River nitrate has exceeded 10 mg/L (the drinking water standard) just downstream from Ottumwa at Keosauqua on at least 76 days and exceeded 8 mg/L (a level where your shorts get in a bunch if you’re water treatment plant operator) on another 106 days.

You could easily say the nitrate threat is greater in Ottumwa than it is in Des Moines because Ottumwa lacks the diversity of water sources and treatment plants that Des Moines has. Ottumwa’s aging (I’ve been in it twice) drinking water treatment plant does not have nitrate removal capacity like Des Moines and the utility relies on water from a former quarry to dilute the Des Moines River nitrate as it is pumped into the treatment plant. And that’s always a crap shoot because these quarries can be cauldrons for nuisance and harmful algae that are a threat in and of themselves.

While you can argue “fairness” all day long, the truth is the Des Moines area has the resources to cope with this problem. You can’t very confidently say the same thing about Ottumwa. And to circle back to my first paragraph, Iowa’s landed gentry, mainly white, many wealthy, some especially wealthy, are polluting the water of a community where many are poor and many are people of color. And in a bit of an irony, many of the Ottumwa folks earn their living by slaughtering the hogs that help pollute the water and are produced by the landed gentry. The JBS hog processing facility in Ottumwa processes a staggering 7 million hogs per year and 1 million pounds of pork per day.

Do the workers care that their drinking water is affected? Or that there is increasing evidence that nitrate in drinking water is a carcinogen? I don’t know. Iowa’s politicians certainly don’t seem to care. Try to find one, just one, from either party that has talked about Ottumwa’s drinking water. These politicians do, however, like to spend time trying to put money into the pockets of the landed gentry. We’re told just this month that they need “resources and regulatory relief” to reduce nutrient runoff. Did I miss something? Are regulations causing this problem? Or, is regulatory relief the “Ransom” that I wrote about two years ago? Hmm. A person could reasonably ask just what about agricultural water quality do we seriously regulate. I don’t know of anything. But if they do come up with something, Ottumwans, hear this: your water is being held hostage.

I’m writing this one today against the backdrop of a political climate that is suggesting that we in the public sector not talk about certain subjects. Of course, one of these is racism and another is environmental justice, and I guess the thinking is that if we don’t talk about them, they won’t exist. Ironically, the same people pushing this are the same ones saying Orwell this, Orwell that, and it’s pretty clear none of them have read many of George’s books. I kind of wonder if most of them don’t think that Animal Farm was published by ISU Extension. But I digress.

Wagner house on N. Ward St. in Ottumwa.

It’s also clear that environmental justice does not exist in Iowa and I sure don’t want to be the guy blamed for its emergence.  What does exist in spades is environmental injustice, and since nobody has explicitly said that topic is taboo, well, essay. Ottumwa is an example. I don’t see any elected person out there in either political party that gives a rat’s behind about it. Of course, the industry rationalizes this injustice by telling us that we should turn a blind eye to the pollution that their practitioners, all (white) paragons of virtue of course, need to generate because they are feeding the world. You can’t make an omelet, after all, without breaking a few eggs. And some of those eggs, maybe more than the average hen is going to lay, are going to be brown. Ottumwans: suck it up, and be thankful you have those hogs to butcher.

Tags: , , , , , ,

16 Responses

  1. Chris,
    I do enjoy your blog letter. It is so well done with humor and thought- provoking stories and anecdotes. I know you care and are trying to incentivize anyone who will listen, which is terrific. You definitely get us to think.
    With your vast knowledge and experience, you should provide us with your suggestions and remedies to fix the “problems “ you point out.
    Just don’t be a complainer, give us, who are awaiting with baited breath, some ideas for progress and improvements.
    Of course, no progress is fast enough. I am impatient as well. You worked for the Des Moines Waterworks, Iowa Soybean Association, and now The University of Iowa, so where should we go? What should we do? Solutions are always welcomed.
    In Minnesota, we are trying with many initiatives from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Discovery Farms of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Fishers and Farmers Partnership with USFWS, AFREC, many on-farm research projects, the hiring at the University of Minnesota of Dr. Fabian Fernandez, who is solely dedicated to nitrogen management and discovery, who has produced vast quantities of management solutions while at the same time recognizing the problem of mineralizable nitrogen which amazingly contributes to nitrogen “pollution” while granting us a gift of more nitrogen to produce higher yields on less acres. It is a conundrum, isn’t it?
    Agriculture really is trying to figure it out, at great cost willingly. Whether cover crops, new crops, or any crops that solve the mystery, along with better animal husbandry, with science leading the way.
    How about Dr. Daniel G. Nocera from Harvard, who has discovered a “biological Bosch-Haber” approach to manufacture nitrogen!! He might win a Nobel Peace Prize.
    So now we might know how to make more nitrogen biologically without fossil fuels, but we still do not know how to control it(nitrate, that is)?! What should we do? What can we do? Is the elimination of farming really an answer? The Vegans hate animals! The rest hate raising crops with Nitrogen and any amount of Tillage! What are we to do?? Starve?? Move to Mars?
    I know cities and impervious surfaces will soon overtake everything soon, but how and what will we eat?
    Maybe there is a pill or antidote for nitrate that is waiting to be discovered. That was Dr. Fernandez’s suggestion to our “search committee “. He was rewarded for his thoughtful, futuristic suggestion.
    If Dr. Nocera can discover a biological approach for producing nitrogen, maybe Dr. Fernandez can discover a method to control nitrate.
    What is your answer, Dear Sir?
    Our Fishers and Farmers Partnership Steering Committee with USFWS is still going strong. We miss you.
    Keep the Blogs coming! We need you for your thoughtfulness and concern. Take care.
    Steve Sodeman
    On a farm south of St. James, MN

    • cjones says:

      thanks for your comments Steve. Hope you are well.

    • dmf says:

      tragic to see factual reporting slandered as complaining, the good professor is trained in physical sciences and writing here as a research engineer not a politician or researcher into political-economy or mass psychology,if we have any chance of turning these matters around we will need some respect for (and understanding of) expertise…

    • Karolyn Schalk says:

      Solving the problem of climate change means making systemic changes in the food industry, and in the distribution of food stuffs.

      Much of the press reports and studies putting a focus on live stock as a worse cause of climate change have come from the fossil fuel industry. Michael Mann and others have pointed this out in recent books and articles. There are sustainable approaches to raising live stock (Stemple Ranch comes to mind), and running dairy cattle, and there are more sustainable approaches to raising grain and other plant crops.

      Obviously new approaches to farming will need to consider cost and access to food for the many, and not the richest members of society. Urban farms, or what used to be called “truck farms” when I was a kid in Illinois, and small, local dairies are old ideas that could be made new, and not only mitigate carbon emission, localized food supplies improve supply chain resilience in the face of natural or medical disasters.

  2. Dave Hilgemann says:

    Good piece. We all need a reminder of the social and political structure as it is ignored so often.
    All men are created equal (so long as they are white land-owning males) has a pretty familiar ring to it in this country (but the qualifications are left unsaid). It would be interesting to look at the statistics of land ownership in Iowa, although much of it is now hidden behind corporate entities and trusts. Even though the life span of an old male in the state has been extended by bypass surgery and other medical miracles during the last 40 years, I suspect that Iowa women own way more land than men. That may actually be a good thing when it comes to environmental improvements.

  3. Zach in WI says:

    This piece and your last on “Big Pollution” hint at a way forward for water quality and environmental justice.

    You’ve critically identified who WON’T be our allies in this fight: government, Democrats, Republicans, (most) environmental NGOs, and the rest of the individuals and institutions that make up Big Pollution. All of these groups have a sufficient material interest in maintaining the current system of property ownership such that they will likely not take on the power structure that leaves us with this pollution.

    The non-agricultural rural landowner – who has made up much of the anti-industrial ag movement thus far – hasn’t been able to muster the power they need to take on Big Pollution, though they do appear to have a material interest to do so. They don’t, however, posses any mechanisms of power that would be sufficient to overcome Big Pollution.

    There is one group you identify that does have a material interest in taking on Big Pollution/ Big Ag: the workers in the packing plants. They also have the power to force the owning classes to submit to their demands, which may well include clean water along with better pay and working conditions. If packing plant workers are sufficiently organized to withhold their labor through a strike or other direct action, the bosses can’t make any money because you can’t sell very many whole hogs. We need a lot more organizing to get to the point where we can pull something like this off, but all of our analyses should consider power and how we can challenge it.

  4. Kenneth Elgersma says:

    Regarding “since nobody has explicitly said that topic is taboo”: This essay sounds like a “divisive concept” to me; see Iowa house file 802.

  5. A.M. says:

    Per a previous comment that asked about “some ideas for progress and improvements,”  here are some ideas for Iowa.  Goals.  Standards. Timelines. Benchmarks. A statewide comprehensive transparent-to-the-public water testing system.  A systematic statewide watershed approach to water quality with paid professional staff, instead of scattered random cluster-bomb efforts.  

    Here are more ideas that would help. The ability to develop and implement at least a couple of regulations/requirements to deal with the worst ag practices, instead of even the most modest and reasonable mandatory measures being completely out of the question here. Asking hard questions, like whether certain practices that contribute substantially to serious environmental problems should continue to be allowed on farms that want to qualify for the Farm Bill.  Requiring that landowners/producers who get paid to allow stover harvest for ethanol also use cover crops on at least half the stover acres, or lose Farm Bill eligibility. 

    And as more ideas, there could be required effective enforced nutrient management plans.  And requirements that all drainage district improvement projects also  include water quality protection work.  Etc.

    If the real question is “what are some ideas for progress and improvements that won’t get any farm organizations mad or upset at all,” we are already sort of doing that stuff in Iowa.  And as pointed out by this blog, our water remains crappy.   

  6. Brian says:

    Thanks Chris for the thought provoking blog. Responding to Steve’s question about how we solve the nitrate problem – there is a solution. The ‘fact’ that is still being taught that plants only take up nitrate and ammonium is pure fallacy. I encourage everyone to check out the work of John Kempf from Advancing Eco Agriculture, as well as Dr. James White’s research on the rhizsophagy cycle. We can solve the nitrate problem with in-field management by fundamentally changing our approach to fertilization and plant nutrition. Crops don’t ‘need’ nitrate, they just use it predominantly because that’s the system we are growing the plants in.

  7. Scott Jones says:

    Chris – I completely agree that something needs to be done to clean up, not just our water supply, but all of our natural resources. I consider myself a staunch environmentalist, however don’t entirely buy into the climate change religion. While you do bring up valid conversation, your article lacks any perspective from the other side. Often times, the problem with the “follow the science” narrative this day in age, is the scientists get to choose the data sets they want to include to promote there agenda. And, I won’t be biased here, it also happens when people have the money and clout to influence decision makers. Clearly farmers are not innocent, but there is no speak, or consideration, in your article about what the American farmer has done, not just for this nation, but for the world. And yes, they are trying to feed an ever burgeoning world population, and by no means purposely polluted our water supply. Further, how many livelihoods, and billions of economic revenue dollars depend on the Iowa farmer. I have to reiterate what Steve Soderman stated earlier, what are your suggestions and solutions, don’t just play the blame game. There has to be two way dialogue, to really accomplish anything. I am certain some how you yourself have benefited from the Iowa farmer in many ways, i.e. renewable energy, affordable food prices, and ironically your career, to name a few. What I further take issue with in your article is, why you feel the need to play the “race card” in it. The fact that most farmers in this nation are white, simply has nothing to do with the water quality. We would be in the same predicament if our farmers were Martian. They are all private individuals running a business, and businesses need to be profitable to survive. Probably why our ancestors got out of the business. At the time when this country was settled I am sure the demographic of this nation was probably 90%+ caucasian. Should they just turn their land and business over? Maybe you would like to give up your job and house because someone new moved into town? This type of narrative is what is so wrong with this country anymore, people feeling like they need to segregate people based on race. I thought we got rid of that in the 60’s? No wonder our country is so divided, when even an article about water quality can somehow circle back to race, and injustice. It’s really quite disheartening. And, of course, its the white males fault. Does anyone ever want to discuss really how great this country is, the millions of opportunities it has provided for countless people of all races and creeds. Not anymore, its just not popular. It must feel so enlightening to be so “Woke”. Maybe it would serve everyone’s best interest to set aside differences, racism, injustice, “wokeness”, and have real dialogue about mutually agreed upon solutions that benefit all, and I’m not just talking about water quality.

  8. A.M. says:

    I was happy to see a version of this post on the website CIVIL EATS. That will give it wider attention, which it deserves.

  9. A.H. says:

    Nicole Masters. Worth everyone’s while to investigate the strategies and concepts she lays out, teaches, tests and succeeds in scaling at a profit for farmers and regeneration of the environment.

  10. Alan Lewis says:

    My grandparents were hoggers for John Morrel, worked in the plant, and managed transportation. I grew up visiting a vibrant Ottumwa for summers, arriving by train from Denver. There is an excellent book covering the history of union relations between the meatpackers and union members in Ottumwa, and the devistating effect of breaking the union, paying imported workers half-wages, and forcing the county to provide free services, medical care and education to the immigrant families. Half the population left to find full paying jobs; those who left found an eroded tax base with greatly increased demands on it. “Annals of Iowa” “When Ottumwa Went to the Dogs: The Erosion of Morrell-Ottumwa’s Militant Unionism.” Warren Wilson.

Leave a Reply